Dan Kelly’s thoughtful post of the other day asked us to consider who it is that we expect to join our Ferrari ride toward renewed moral consensus, what issues we might agree on, and where it is that we’re going in the first place. He also mentioned that the answers to these questions would likely be different “if we are starting in Berkeley as opposed to Branson.” I agree. But I think we should have a closer look at those local differences, which seem to be a cause for moral dispute rather than consensus, because they might actually be key to figuring out both where we’re going and who’s going with us on this moral consensus road trip.
I was recently in, well, Berkeley for a conference on Aquinas (you read that correctly – Berkeley, Aquinas), but I took advantage of the trip westward to visit a dear old Peace Corps friend in the area. Peace Corps has a way of rendering small the ideological differences that might, stateside, prevent people from forging lifelong friendships. After all, when you’re all in the trenches of homestays with Berber families, away from running water, sanitation and the English language, even radically different political ideals seems fairly unimportant, and this friendship was no exception. Back to Berkeley. I was having a chat one morning (over our granola and hemp milk, naturally) with my friend’s boyfriend, who shares her political views, and while we weren’t discussing politics per se, we were at least complaining about the current American cultural and political milieu – and finding quite a bit of common ground in the process. Most striking was a moment in which he proclaimed with a great deal of conviction that “the problem in this country is that the states don’t have enough power.” Well now. It turns out, I wasn’t the only one in the room who thinks that federalism is a good idea and that increasing centralization is a bad idea, even if he wouldn’t put it in such terms. He, a progressive San Francisco artist, would like to see more variety in our American cultural landscape, and he thinks that centralizing power and dictating top-down legal and cultural norms from Washington is not the way to get there. Who knew.
But this is just one anecdote, right? Surely we can’t expect allies to appear in such unlikely places very often? Perhaps we can, or at least more often than we might think. Our nation is deeply divided at present; no one needs to point that out. But I suspect that in at least some ways, we’re not going to get past those rigid ideological divisions towards a more unified America by tackling the issues head-on. What I mean by that is that we usually can’t expect to argue anyone who is ideologically distant from us – and, let’s be honest, that’s a lot of people – into joining our moral stance(s) on family, church, and civil society. I don’t think that my Peace Corps friend, her boyfriend, or I would have budged very far from our respective positions if we had tried to do so. But my friend and I had lived and worked both with each other – and with people with even more radically divergent religious, cultural and political ideals – for two years in Morocco and yet, somehow, we were able to get some things done and cooperate on matters that actually required some measure of moral consensus, at least for the projects at hand. In other words, we might not all agree on what education should be, but when it came to getting a community educational center in the village, we could still come together for the sake of our local community, making compromises when necessary and actually working with people with whom we disagreed, often fundamentally. I suggest that this is because we were acting through face-to-face interactions, at a local level, rather than simply picking up the local details of a top-down, centrally planned project.
The same thing can be true here in America, and if my Peace Corps friend and her boyfriend are any indicator, Americans want it to be true, at least at some level. There are places for ideas and arguments (goodness knows I spend most of my day with them), and certainly there are times when decisions have to happen at the national level. Still, achieving moral consensus also – perhaps even primarily – requires real interactions and activities, not just debates, between people at the local level, working out actual problems concerning their own communities. Doing so will mean that there continue to be different ways of doing things in Berkeley as in Branson, but that’s precisely the point – those who want a Berkeley society can live in Berkeley, and those who fit better in Branson can live out their lives there.
This is overly simplified, of course; much of where we live and who we live with is given rather than chosen. But then again, if our local politics and engagements are allowed to have any real bearing on our lives, that might be a very good thing.